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Interview with Northern Oak

Northern Oak began in 2006, in the humble confines of Ranmoor Hall, a hall of residence for students at the University of Sheffield by founding guitarist Chris Mole and founding drummer Daniel Loughran. The duo were raising Cain in the practice room one balmy autumn evening when there was a knock at the door and founding keyboardist Elliot Sinclair stuck his head round the door.
In almost no time, the three of them decided to start a band. Shortly, the band found themselves looking for a vocalist:. another connection was forged through the Sheffield University Rock Society, and vocalist James Harris joined the band.

A camping trip to the Peak District in frosty February 2007 saw the band bonding over their love of nature and establishing a creative direction from themselves, as well as deciding on a name- Northern Oak was born, and shortly afterwards the band became whole with the addition of flautist Catie Williams. The rest of the year was spent writing, practicing and recording material for a debut album, as well as two live performances at Under the Boardwalk which gave the band some necessary live experience. However, some
line-up changes delayed the release of the debut album. In 2008, the self-recorded and self-produced Tales From Rivelin was released.

The band gigged much more widely in support of Tales From Rivelin throughout 2008, including a show at the Gathering of the Clans festival in Coalville, and began to work on material for their next album. Other line-up changes delayed the writing process for a new album: Monuments was released in December 2010, receiving some excellent press attention in 2011. The band continued to gig throughout 2012 while also beginning to work on new material for their third album.

As 2013 advanced, Northern Oak began looking into ways to fund the follow-up to Monuments. They wanted to produce something that was much higher quality than the last album, in order to do the songs that they had written in the previous three years justice, and discussed various ways of achieving that. Eventually, the band decided to run a Kickstarter campaign in order to try and raise the funds that they needed to record. The Kickstarter campaign ran from November to early December, and the band supported it by putting together a 6-date tour entitled The Astral Chaos Tour with their good friends Eibon la Furies. The tour allowed them to spread the word about the Kickstarter campaign, and they were rewarded with the rousing success of the campaign as it reached its funding target of £3000 with more than a week remaining. Thanks to the support and generosity of their fanbase, Northern Oak were able to enter the studio in February 2014 and begin recording on their third album, Of Roots and Flesh.

I have just finished to assimilate your album: as you know I have reviewed it and rated as 80/100. Have you read my analysis (using google translator), what do you think?

Chris (guitars): It’s always a little tricky using Google Translate to read reviews because the points that the reviewer is making often get lost in translation, but we were fairly happy with your score. We’d obviously disagree with your opinion that the flutes are excessive in the last track, but that’s because the flute is a very important element of our sound, and we love working it into our music so that it’s part of the ensemble and not just playing a few flute solos here and there. That aside, thank you for your kind words about the album, we appreciate it!

When I was looking for information about Northern Oak, I surprisely discovered that 'Of Roots and Flesh' is your third album, you were very hide in the underground or what? Could you tell something more about the history of the band and what do you do in your life?

This is our third album, yes- we self-released both of our previous two albums as well ('Tales From Rivelin' in 2007 and 'Monuments' in 2010.) We got some great feedback and good reviews to our previous album, so I wouldn’t say that we’ve been hidden very deep in the underground, but at the time we made 'Monuments' we didn’t have the funds or the ability to put together a polished, professional-sounding product or to promote it in any meaningful way beyond playing gigs in the UK.

With “Of Roots and Flesh”, we’re very proud of the result and as a result we’ve put a lot more time (and money!) into promoting the album, so I think that’s helped us get more exposure. We’ve basically spent the last few years playing as many gigs as possible to try and raise our profile, with the hope that if we keep working at it we’ll get more attention and (ideally) get picked up by a label, but it’s not easy being an independent band considering the current state of the industry.

How the new release improve the sound of previous works, which are the changes?

For “Of Roots and Flesh”, we knew before we even had all the songs written that we wanted it to sound vastly superior to “Monuments”. We’re proud of “Monuments”, but it definitely sounds like an amateur production- for this album, we wanted to push the boat out as much as possible and show the world exactly what we can do. Working with Chris Fielding at Skyhammer Studio (a producer responsible for a lot of incredible albums) was a massive honour and we’re very grateful that we were able to Kickstart the money to do that- he pushed us to get the best performances out of us, and his expertise at the desk means that the record sounds stunning (in my opinion!)

What about the songwriting process? How "Of Roots and Flesh" is born?

For the songwriting process, we’d been working on material for the album throughout the four years since we released “Monuments”- in fact, one or two of the songs were written before “Monuments” was released and we spent years honing them as part of our live set. Generally, the songs started with one of us coming up with the riffs and basic structure at home then bringing that material into the practice room for the rest of the band to jam on it, come up with their parts and suggest alterations. We’ve always made sure that we can play every song that we write live (no album-only tracks!) so part of our songwriting process is to basically practice the songs over and over until we can play them perfectly!

Could you tell me more of Kickstarter campain?

The Kickstarter campaign was both nerve-wracking and very exciting- I’d backed a few campaigns myself, and thought it looked like a great way for us to hopefully raise the money for the album by going directly to our fans. We put a lot of time into writing up the campaign brief and getting the video together, because we wanted to show that we were serious about what we’d do with the money- the worst thing you can do in any Kickstarter campaign is to be vague about your goals or to look amateurish. I think we put together a very professional campaign, and we managed to exceed our target of £3000 by a good margin, so our fans obviously thought so too!

Which is your musical background?

Our musical background is tricky to pin down- every member of the band has different influences and they all feed into Northern Oak. For example, I listen to a wide range of stuff from extreme metal (black/death) to classic rock and even videogame soundtracks, while our flautist Catie is influenced by both classic folk tunes and epic folk metal (like Moonsorrow) and our bassist Rich listens to a lot of punk and indie! We try not to restrict ourselves to “just” writing folk metal, because we want to keep our music sounding fresh and unique, and part of that is to let those influences from outside our chosen genre inform our song writing.

In the website is reported that Northern Oak is a mix of Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd and Emperor; I wrote that in your sound it is possible to recognize also the influences of Skyclad and Primordial, am I drunk or I got your mood in the right way?

I think you’re absolutely right- both Skyclad and Primordial are bands that we respect and appreciate, and we’ve also been fortunate enough to play a gig with Skyclad at Martin Walkyier’s Viking Funeral Festival back in 2012. Primordial are a huge influence on me- I love their sound and I’d be overjoyed if we could support them one day!

What about the lyrics of "Of Roots and Flesh", how a song is built inside the band, who are the main members involved in that process?

The lyrics are almost all down to Martin, our poetic vocalist- one of us might occasionally suggest a subject matter for the song that we’re working on (for example, when writing the song ‘Nerthus’ I suggested that the lyrics should be about the Germanic goddess and found a few stories about her to inspire him) but Martin is the one who takes those ideas and concepts and turns them into fantastic stories. I love his ability to create an emotional core to any song that we write- even if we’re writing about mythological stories and tales, Martin has the ability to relate those stories back to human emotions and feelings.

What about your live attitude, is there something special in your live shows, what about the usage of the unusual instruments of Northern Oak?

With every gig, we always try to put on a huge show and throw ourselves into it 100%- it doesn’t matter how many people are in the audience, we want to come out on stage and surprise/entertain them as much as possible. I’d consider our attire something special- we certainly look different from a lot of other folk metal bands since we wear waistcoats and smart clothes on stage! For the “unusual instruments”, as I mentioned previously we make sure that every song we have can be played live, so we’re always able to do the material justice. Catie and Digby (our keyboardist/violin player) have both become quite adept at switching between their multiple instruments- I’m grateful I just have a guitar to deal with!

Are there any live planned for the next future?

We have quite a few gigs lined up for next year already- we’re playing a couple of great UK festivals (Mosh Against Cancer and Beermageddon) and we’re also booked as the main support for Moonsorrow in their only UK headlining show of 2015, at the Viking Metal Festival in York on the 20thof February. Our goal for next year is to keep pushing ourselves, to play more high-profile gigs with bigger bands and to hopefully make it into Europe for a couple of shows. We’d also love to get onto the Sophie stage at Bloodstock Open Air festival next year- it’s the UK’s best metal festival, in our opinion, and we last got to play there in 2011. There’s currently a thread on the festival forum for people to tell the organisers that they want us to play, so we’re encouraging everybody to go on that thread and harass the organisers to put us on the bill!

How is the metal scene in Sheffield, any band to recommend us?

Sheffield has a pretty great rock/metal scene- there are a lot of good bands and we’re proud to be part of that group. Special shout-outs go to Regulus (http://regulusband.bandcamp.com) who are great and fantastic guys and Lacrota (http://www.facebook.com/Lacrota) who are heavier than a very heavy thing, but there are loads more bands out there that we’re not familiar with.

Slightly further afield from Sheffield, the UK has some incredible underground acts at the moment- Old Corpse Road (http://www.oldcorpseroad.co.uk) are great friends of ours and play amazing music, and we’d also recommend Eibon la Furies (http://www.eibonlafuries.co.uk) and Andraste (http://www.facebook.com/AndrasteMetal).

In the Pit of the Damned, we are used to ask for the "Desert Island List”: three books, three records and three movies you can’t live without

Books: “Jingo” by Terry Pratchett, “The Hobbit” by J.R.R Tolkien and “Battle Royale” by Koushun Takami.

Records: Agalloch – “Ashes Against The Grain”, The Ocean – “Pelagial”, Pink Floyd – “Dark Side of the Moon”.

Movies: The Star Wars Original Trilogy (Episodes IV, V and VI)!

Thanks a lot Chris, hope to see Northern Oak also in Italy, one day...

(Francesco Scarci for The Pit of the Damned)